Why more dissent means better policies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2003, 12:00am


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This year's political dramas have propelled the government into full listening and consultation mode, as an enforced substitute for conventional democracy. It may be welcome, but there is a danger that we end up either effectively having a street referendum on just about everything, or freezing all action. Paralysis has already, for example, struck the field of revenue-raising. This can scarcely be a viable state of affairs for long; governance must carry on.

Therefore, public faith has to be restored to the process of policy formulation. People need not only to be confident in the technical quality of proposals, but also to have the confidence to respect the political judgment on which decisions are based, even if they may individually disagree with such decisions. How might this be achieved?

Generally, the government hopes to win over hearts and minds with persuasive presentations of policy; endorsement through the advisory network; and public consultation.

What appears to be missing, or at best patchy, is any enthusiasm to engage openly in oppositional debate, unless or until it becomes obligatory, as when summoned by the Legislative Council, for instance. Such debate ought, ideally, to take place at a fairly early stage in the policy process, and should reach well down into the technical detail. It should involve not only supporters, but also - most importantly - those likely to challenge orthodoxy.

I am reminded that Hong Kong's worst-ever currency crisis, in 1983, might have been resolved sooner, or even averted, if the government of the day had been more willing to accept an outside challenge to its beliefs and to engage in serious debate. One would like to think that the climate has changed since then, but is anyone entirely sure that it has?

Another requirement is to wring the best possible value from talent available in the government's network of advisory bodies and the like. The allegation that the government only actively seeks advice from those likely to be either supportive or merely supine may be unfair, but what is more important is that the advisers who are engaged should be properly utilised, regardless of any actual or presumed allegiances.

I see some analogy here to the role of non-executive directors on company boards. A new book, Back to the Drawing Board, discusses problems encountered by non-executive directors in fulfilling their roles, not least in coping with the subtle pressures which induce conformity within the board to the management, or majority, view. One suggestion is that independent directors should specialise in particular topics. Drawing on the analogy, this approach is probably already in evidence in some of our government advisory bodies because of the appointment of specialists; in other cases there may indeed be scope for assigning specific portfolios to committee members to sharpen discussion.

Another, more colourful suggestion in the book is that, for each important proposal coming to the board, a 'dissident' director should be appointed to prepare and argue the case against it. From my limited knowledge of advisory committee work in Hong Kong, the idea of one member being designated to play devil's advocate has considerable appeal and could prove hugely beneficial.

Of course, the individuals concerned would have to be prepared to increase their commitment to committee duties, and might need to be rewarded in a comparable fashion to non-executive directors. Or perhaps a new breed of member would need to be recruited - which might be no bad thing. And, since they are not accountable for decisions in the same way as company directors, they might, if encouraged to challenge, come up with the occasional bit of nonsense. But, overall, it should be an improvement on just nodding - or nodding off.

For the time being, Hong Kong is stuck with its electoral arrangements and government structure, but this does not mean that the processes within government cannot be refreshed.

Tony Latter is a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong